Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Simplifying the Cellphone Experience

You own a cellphone, but someone else added the names and numbers stored in it. You don’t keep your phone turned on, nor do you think to charge it regularly. Your voicemail was set up by one of your kids or grandchildren, and you don’t know how to check it. You begged the cellphone salesperson to sell you the most basic phone.

If you’re nodding as you read this, either personally relating to the challenges of using a cellphone or on behalf of someone you know, you’re not alone. Many people — especially baby boomers and their parents — feel anxious about using these increasingly complicated gadgets. These people are usually smart and capable, but just don’t know their way around a cellphone.

Cellphone Photo
The OneTouch Jitterbug cellphone has three large buttons.

This week, we tested two new cellphones and a new cellphone service designed to address this problem, by placing simplicity and ease-of-use first. These $150 phones are called Jitterbugs, and they come from a Del Mar, Calif., company called GreatCall Inc. Its phones are physically and functionally different, emphasizing easy navigation with large buttons and simple menus. And its service includes an operator who acts as a concierge, optionally placing calls for you and even remotely adding numbers to your phone’s contact list.

We found using the Jitterbugs to be a little challenging at first because we’re more accustomed to the myriad of menus, buttons and shortcuts in our more complex cellphones. But we soon became comfortable with the Jitterbugs’ straightforward style and helpful operator/concierge.

We did miss some of the features that come standard in regular cellphones, like a battery indicator on the main screen that tells how much juice remains. (This information is only visible on a separate page in the menu.) And, while GreatCall has introduced simple calling plans to go with the Jitterbug phones, these plans are a bit pricey when compared with some plans offered by the big carriers. GreatCall is a small phone carrier that relies on roaming agreements with major cellphone carriers to handle most of its calls.

The company says the service is best for people who are light or moderate users. Monthly or yearly plans are available; buying a yearly plan includes a phone. The monthly plans cost as little as $10 for an “SOS” plan with no included minutes (these cost 35 cents each) and top out at $40 for 300 minutes. The same plans cost $244 and $569 when purchased in annual packages. Extra chunks of time can be purchased at $25 for 100 minutes, or a whopping 25 cents a minute. Each call to the operator includes a free minute of talk time but instantly deducts five minutes from your plan, in addition to the time you spend on the call over one minute.

Jitterbug phones come in two models: OneTouch and Dial. Both are white, clamshell phones made by Samsung that are a little larger than typical cellphones so as to feel more comfortable when you’re holding them. They each come with an ear cushion; GreatCall says this reduces outside noise.

OneTouch has just three large buttons where a numeric keypad would be; these are labeled Operator, My Choice, and 911 by default (but can be changed). The Dial model has a numeric keypad with large buttons that are easy to press. Yes and No buttons take the place of Send and End, and questions appear on-screen to walk you through how to use a Jitterbug phone.

When you order a phone from the Jitterbug Web site, you tell GreatCall the names and phone numbers that you’d like programmed into your phone’s address book. These numbers come preloaded on your phone and are also kept in your profile with GreatCall so that at any time, you can ask the operator to make a call for you using one of those numbers instead of finding it in the phone yourself.

We tested both phones, finding the OneTouch to be a simpler solution for those who want as little confusion as possible, but it bugged us not having a keypad to dial a number. The first time we opened each of the phones, we were startled to hear a sound completely foreign to cellphones: a dial tone. An on-screen message asked if we wanted to use the phone’s voice-recognition feature; this works without any training.

We found the reception on our Jitterbugs to be somewhat fuzzy compared with our regular Verizon service.

We tested the operator feature by pressing Operator on the OneTouch phone or “0” on the Dial phone, and a live person picked up right away. In one instance, we asked the operator to dial our office number for us, and he put us right through. Another time, we called the operator to add a number to our GreatCall database.

On Monday, GreatCall will be able to remotely add numbers to its phones using a Short Message Service (SMS) technology. For now, OneTouch phone owners can’t do this on their own, but Dial owners can add names and numbers to their phones using a smart step-by-step process that was easier than that of a regular cellphone.

Setting up and checking voicemail works by following simple audible directions. Instead of pressing numbers to delete or save messages, you can just say “Yes” or “No” to vocal prompts, or press those buttons on the phone. And no four-digit password is required.

Your cellphone number is printed on a sticker just below the phone’s screen. This screen never goes dark when left opened, allowing you time to read menu prompts. But this always-on screen also affects the Jitterbug battery life, which the company estimates will last for an unremarkable three hours of talk time.

In early 2007, Jitterbug will start offering a Web site that you or others can access to input names and numbers that will show up on the cellphone. Other features, such as the ability to get digital photos on a Jitterbug cellphone, will also be offered. But GreatCall wants to focus on simplifying cellphone features for now.

Whether you like it or not, cellphones are already a big part of many people’s lives, and are quickly becoming a part of yours. Instead of feeling helpless, we suggest trying a Jitterbug. These phones aren’t perfect, but they’re much easier to understand, and the operator service is a built-in helper.

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